The Guest Who’s Coming to Dinner: Ozon’s Period Culture Clash a Handsome, Uninvolving Production
In many ways, Francois Ozon’s output still swings jaggedly between the ripe queerness of his terrible enfant days and a more classically oriented auteur who, above all else, is an unabashed actress-sexual. Following 2014’s campy and anachronistic Ruth Rendell rendition The New Girlfriend, the director presents one of his subtlest melodramas with post WWI period piece Frantz, a poker faced slow burn of juxtapositions and handsome visuals. Headlined by recent Cesar winner Pierre Niney, this isn’t another male focal point a la the director’s underrated Time to Leave (2005), as Ozon graces us with a complex and captivating turn from newcomer Paula Beer with a performance which often transcends the narrative’s eventual simplicity.
In 1919 rural Germany, the quiet and beautiful Anna (Paula Beer) mourns the death of her fiancé Frantz (Anton von Lucke), who died in combat while in France during WWI. Living with his parents, a doctor (Ernst Stotzner) and his pleasant wife (Marie Gruber), life seems to have settled into a grey stagnation for the morose trio, none of them having felt any closure since the death of their loved one. But Anna notices someone has been leaving flowers recently on Frantz’s grave, and eventually, she spies a crying Frenchman, who she tracks down at his hotel. Adrien Rivoire (Pierre Niney) claims to have been a close friend of Frantz, so moved by his death he made his way to Germany, despite the formidable tension between both countries. Delighted to hear stories of the young dead man, Adrien shares plenty of delightful anecdotes about their adventures together, and the family becomes enamored with him, despite the foreboding of the townsfolk, especially other German suitors who had been hoping for a chance at wooing Anna. Eventually, Adrian confesses a devastating secret to Anna.
Obviously, the absent but titular Frantz is a homonym for the other phantom haunting these sad faced Germans, their neighboring country of France, a land which seems to have been a welcome escape for the young man. The only real surprise Ozon’s screenplay unveils in this scenario, co-scripted by Philippe Piazzo, is how it plays with our ingrained expectations about Niney’s Adrian Rivoire. Niney, who’s recent performance as Yves Saint Laurent would have us expecting his character’s obsession with Frantz must be due to a clandestine romance between the men, gives a quiet, near tubercular performance as a man with a secret—but maybe not the most obvious one, though the specter of homosexuality is pushed rather heavily by his character’s constant comparisons to the overtly sensitive and recently deceased Frantz. But it’s German actress Beer who maintains the film’s vibrant energy, the black and white austerity enhanced greatly by several asides ambushed by color, which bleeds over the scenery whenever the characters are engaged in something enjoyable. Pascal Marti’s frames fixate on Beer’s face in several of these moments, which blazes like a hot flame over the scenery.
Ultimately, Frantz reveals a simpler narrative, one taking great pains to align Anna and Adrien as equals, not only over the connective tissue of what happened in/with Frantz/France, but also as mournful representatives of their bruised countries. Ozon marinates too heavily in these justifiable compositions, with too many conversations and sequences on how both warring countries were simultaneously at fault as they were victims of armed conflict.
At heart, Frantz is a sobering study on the presence of absence, and how it infects, to detrimental effect, the perspective and judgment of those left unsettled by it. Ozon’s Under the Sand (2000) is his most masterful treatment of this to date, where a luminous Charlotte Rampling suddenly finds herself alone on a beach, her husband having mysteriously disappeared. But the interactions between Adrien and Frantz’s family also recalls something like recent American genre throwback The Guest (2014), where Dan Stevens Iraq veteran infiltrates a dead comrade’s family who are all too ready to believe and accept any heroic story about their deceased son rather than question the insidious intentions of a coincidental stranger.
For Ozon, Frantz is an intriguing change of pace, a period piece in another language, and with straightforward but evident depth absent something like a similar move in 2007’s English language Angel. But you’ll be hard pressed to remember much about it beyond the stirring presence of Paula Beer.
Reviewed on September 9th at the 2016 Toronto International Film Festival – Special Presentations Programme. 113 Minutes.